Last Sunday Jesus gave a parable about praying without getting discouraged. This Sunday he gives another parable, keeping the same theme of prayer, but about those who consider themselves more righteous than others. We are invited to examine ourselves regarding our attitude in prayer: what’s my attitude towards God and towards others? Let’s pray for the grace of humility that will enable us to turn to God in humble prayer.
He will not turn away a humble and contrite heart
- Sirach 35 : 12–19
- 2 Timothy 4 :6-18
- Luke 18: 9–14
Two men at prayer
In the gospel Jesus gives a parable about two men at prayer, a Pharisee and a tax collector. Who are they?
Let’s see the Pharisee first. I wonder what image you have of a Pharisee. The Gospel accounts often present Pharisees in conflict with Jesus. And Jesus reproaches them in strong terms. With that we are unlikely to have a positive image about them. Nevertheless, it’s good to note that Pharisees were respectable people. Not only were they experts in interpreting the law but they also followed it to the letter. Jews concerned about living faithfully according to the demands of the law, as chosen people, certainly consulted the Pharisees for advice. Hence, when the pharisee in the parable talks about religious acts like fasting and paying the tenth of his income, he probably accomplishes them. As far as observing the law is concerned, we would say, a Pharisee is a righteous person, different from a publican.
On the contrary, a tax collector collaborates with a foreign and oppressive government of Romans. We know, paying taxes can be burdensome; worse enough if it means paying to colonial powers. And worse still, tax collectors did not content themselves to collect only the amount that was required. Instead, they overcharged the people. They enriched themselves by cheating. For that reason, they were hated and considered as public sinners. Hence, normally a tax collector would even be ashamed of going to the Temple. How would people look at him? Isn’t it scandalous then that Jesus goes on to affirm that it’s the tax collector who goes home reconciled with God, and not a “righteous” one –the Pharisee? What went wrong, then, with the Pharisee’s prayer?
Prayer of the Pharisee
Certainly, the parable does not imply that Jesus disregards all that the Pharisee does in observance of the law. He disapproves only his pride and his judgmental attitude towards the publican.
In fact, the Pharisee begins well his prayer in an attitude of gratitude. But then, unfortunately, it ends in self-praise, all centered on himself and his accomplishments. Isn’t it a bit strange that God be pushed on the margins in a prayer?
Besides, he uses his virtues as a cane against the publican. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” The pride does not end at showing off only but he also despises those who are not like him; I’m holier-than-you mentality. Yet, it’s this same publican he despises who returns home reconciled with God, thanks to his humble prayer.
Humble prayer of the publican
Just like he does not disregard the good works of the Pharisee, in the same way, certainly Jesus does not approve the sinful acts of the publican. It’s his humble prayer that renders the tax collector just. He recognizes what he is before God, a sinner before his creator. He has no merit to parade but only to implore the mercy of God: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
This parable that builds on the theme of the previous Sunday makes us appreciate that persevering in prayer alone is not enough. We ought to examine also our attitude when we pray: what place does God occupy in prayer? Does my prayer help me to build relationships with others that are fraternal and respectful?
Turning to God in humble prayer, like the publican, is not about humiliating oneself. Humility is rather about taking one’s rightful place. I acknowledge who I’m before God. I depend on him and it’s only with his grace that I can do anything worthy of praise. This is what Paul means when he says: “What do you have that you didn’t receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (I Co 4:7). The publican, sinner though he is, he is however just simply because he accords God a rightful place in his life.
Let’s approach him in humble prayer
We shouldn’t be ashamed to present ourselves before God as we are. As Ben Sirach shows us in the first reading, God is not partial. He is attentive to those who approach him in humble prayer no matter what their lifestyle is. Especially, Widows, orphans and the poor are dear to him; no tear that trickles on their cheek leaves him indifferent. Indeed, “Le sacrifice qui plaît à Dieu, c’est un esprit brisé ; tu ne repousses pas, ô mon Dieu, un cœur brisé et broyé » (Ps 50 :19).
It means, despite the many things for which I may reproach myself from the past life, I don’t hesitate to ask for God’s mercy. God looks at the sincerity of heart. And so I should ask myself, how do I present myself before him, here and now?
Perhaps, a Pharisee? Or a Publican?
Where do I place myself, a Pharisee or Publican? Possibly I want to identify myself with a publican. Yet, it’s not a question of either Pharisee or publican. In both, there is something to learn but also something to discard.
Firstly, the Pharisee is an admirable man in his fidelity to the law of God. Isn’t a Christian called to model his life on the law of love? Indeed, how happy is the man who takes delight in the law of God and meditates it day and night (cf. Ps1:2). Here the Pharisee may inspire us. However, we also realise that despite the effort we make to walk in the paths of the Lord, at certain moments we fall. We need to approach God in humble prayer and say –Lord have mercy on me, I have sinned. The attitude of the publican can help us cultivate humility in us. It’s about presenting myself before God, and before others, as I’m without fearing rejection.
The feeling in the evening of my life
In the Second Reading, Paul draws near to the end of his life. Death is something that puts us face to face with our finitude and fragility. We won’t live forever, we shall die. That can evoke different sentiments. Happily for him, Paul looks back at his life with contentment: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Yet, not all persons have the sentiment of joy when they look at their past. Some people are inhabited by fear and regret, the sentiments quite agonizing.
So let’s pray for ourselves, and especially for those near death, that in God we may meet a merciful father who will not turn away a humble and contrite heart.
(If you believe in the mercy of God for you and for others, then, don’t just leave -share this with others)